The IDF's Special Forces commando units have taken to urban settings to conduct training drills, as commanders say operating in close proximity to civilians helps remind them just what they're fighting for.
The Egoz Unit's troops raided a kibbutz in the north, while Duvdevan troops went out in search of a wanted suspect hiding inside a Druze village in the Golan Heights.
Sayeret Rimon holds drills while its troops carry out operational duty near the Gaza Strip, in order to prepare them for any scenario, while Maglan commandos raid communities to train new recruits.
Sayeret Tzanhanim is drilling their response to terror attacks and hostage situations several times a week, while the soldiers of the Yahalom Combat Engineering Unit work to find solution to the different brigades for any engineering problem they may encounter.
Civilians who passed by the abandoned factory near Kiryat Shmona earlier this month could view the Egoz commando unit in all of its glory. Several days after their "raid" of Kibbutz Ga'aton in the Western Galilee, the commandos undertook drills for raiding industrial structures in the northern city.
"Beyond the fact Egoz is an excellent raiding unit, we're the best when it comes to closed spaces and fighting techniques in such spaces," a senior commander in the unit said.
Drilling fighting in urban areas or nearby allows the commandos to experience difficulties and challenges they won't face when training at special training facilities.
"When you train at special urban warfare facilities, you don't come across or come in contact with the civilian population. You don't have to consider the meaning of this when analyzing the field and understanding where to deploy the troops," the senior commander explained.
The unit's commanders believe training in urban areas also helps the soldiers better understand how the enemy looks on the other side.
And, beyond the operational contribution to the forces' training, conducting drills among the civilian population only serves to bolster soldiers' sense of responsibility, encouraging them to strive to perfect their combat prowess.
"An Egoz commando experiences such a training exercise as more challenging. When he takes over a school or raids areas within a city inside Israel, it certainly helps to sharpen his sense of commitment to the mission," the senior commander said.
Sayeret Rimon's routine operations on the Gaza border were interrupted by an alert of a security incident in the nearby city of Ofakim. In short order, the troops loaded their equipment onto their vehicles and headed towards the city—some on the main roads and some on dirt paths.
This time, it was only a drill, but one can never be sure when the forces will be called upon to wage real battle.
This is par for the course for the Special Forces unit. Every time they are conducting routine operations, the troops also drill some extreme scenario that might happen in their area of operations.
"This is the kind of drill that represents the character of the unit. We don't get a lot of rest. We are either on operational duty, or we're training for one operation or another," one of the unit's commanders explained.
Holding the training exercise while the forces are on operational duty not only keeps them fit and ready but also helps them become familiar with the area and drill responses to different scenarios that could occur in the sector while they're conducting routine operations.
The decision to conduct the drill inside a city teeming with life was made to simulate reality for the troops as much as possible.
"We want to bring the soldiers as close as possible to the edge. A local incident won't happen at a training facility in Tze'elim but rather in one of our communities or inside enemy territory. There are all sorts of challenges inside communities, such as lighting, which put the soldier in a more real and less artificial place."
Another advantage to fighting inside an Israeli community is bolstering the soldiers' sense of commitment and devotion to the mission, since it is taking place on home turf.
"Every soldier always gives his 200 percent, but when it's closer to home, you try harder. A soldier who realizes this is happening in one of the communities here—where either he or his friends live—feels a greater sense of responsibility, and he can better relate to the mission," the commander said.
The residents of a Druze village in the Golan Heights have noticed increased military presence on the streets and in the alleyways recently. However, it's not a top secret operation taking place, but rather a long, ongoing training exercise of the Duvdevan commando unit.
"Our mission is to capture a wanted suspected who is somewhere in the village, while moving and fighting in an urban area but also in a forested area, which is tangled and open," a senior commander in the unit said.
"My mission is to eliminate the enemy or, if possible, capture him. This is a complex mission that requires a lot of selectivity. The most significant achievement for me is making it out alive with a living enemy so we could get more information out of him."
In addition to the extensive training, the unit carries out hundreds of arrests every year. The operational activity helps improve the soldiers' abilities, as a commander in the unit can attest. "We find ourselves in the field every night, in the most complex places, facing terrorists in complex situations of fighting and intelligence, and this definitely enhances soldiers' abilities."
Boasting the breadth of his soldiers' experience, the commander added that "If you gather all of Duvdevan's soldiers and name refugee camps, asking who was there over the last month, there wouldn't be a single one with his hand not raised. We're in refugee camps all the time. Eventually, it allows you to focus more on the particular circumstances, because they're well accustomed to being in the field."
In the dead of night, the gate for Kibbutz Negba opened and commandos from the Maglan Unit started sneaking inside. Several days later, they were sighted in the alleyways of Abu Ghosh. This was all part of a training exercise the unit conducts every once in a while.
In recent weeks, the unit's commandos have raided many communities across the country, with the objective being the same: training the new recruits in the unit and teaching them how to move in any type of area and terrain without being spotted. These drills are part and parcel of the training of new soldiers in the unit.
"The ability to analyze the area in depth and understand where I can be seen and where I cannot is one of the abilities required of a commando," a Maglan official explained.
The main scenario for which the commandos were drilling was similar to the missions they carry out in reality: an enemy is hiding in one of the communities, and their objective is to eliminate him and then leave without being captured.
In Abu Ghosh, the commandos drill operating in a village setting, while Negba allows them to drill urban warfare in an area not overly crowded, which also includes vegetation.
"When a soldier or a commander trains in a living, breathing area, it helps him better immerse himself in the drill and allows him to focus and face the challenge in the best way possible. It gives him a more realistic challenge," a unit official said.
Another advantage is the presence of civilians, which pushes the soldiers to utilize their abilities to effectively take cover. While the drills are coordinated with the local authorities and do not disrupt daily life, "if a civilian spots you during the drill—it means you've been exposed," the official said.
Two minutes: That's how long it takes the Paratroopers Brigade's elite force Sayeret Tzanhanim's counterterrorism team to reach the scene of an incident from the moment they receive the call. It could be a disturbance at the Gaza border fence or a terror attack inside one of the nearby communities.
The force specializes in terror attacks and hostage situations and frequently carries out training exercises, sometimes several times a week.
"The enemy will challenge us in a real incident, we must always be prepared, with the hope we don't need to use this training," a senior Sayeret Tzanhanim officer said.
In short order, the soldiers arrived at a school in Kibbutz Sa'ad, less than 5 km from the Gaza border, and waited for further instructions from the team commander.
"In the end, it is the team's commander who provides the solution. There is a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, because if he makes a mistake—there are civilians to consider," the officer emphasized.
"The soldiers are not familiar with the school. They know the communities in the area, they know the school could be a target, but they had no early intelligence on the incident," he went on to say.
The Sayeret Tzanhanim commandos train in an unfamiliar setting intended to drag them out of their comfort zone. "This isn't their home court. The training facility is their home court, they know exactly what houses are there, what roads there are," the officer said.
Meanwhile, at the school, "there is furniture, doors and narrow places. It has a different effect. The difficulty is dictated by the training ground. During training, the soldiers are focused on the drill, very much want to save hostages and (kill) terrorists, but they really understand that this is real," the officer concluded.
Yahalom Combat Engineering Unit
Among the many challenges that await combat units in urban areas, the engineering challenge is the most significant one. To deal with this challenge, soldiers from the Yahalom Combat Engineering Unit's Yael commando demolition team joins every maneuvering brigade with an assigned mission of opening up the way and solving unexpected problems.
The unit's combat teams can handle any issue the maneuvering forces encounter: from operational solutions in mined areas to disposing of bombs and breaking into structures. They also have special subterranean abilities.
For an entire week, the troops drilled fighting in southern Israel, particularly in the Gaza Strip area, at a training base in Tze'elim. They simulated a scenario in which they joined an infantry brigade and had to provide it with solutions to any engineering issues they come across.
"The unit is required to know how to work alongside the forces and provide solutions to quite a few brigades. We're doing this both in war time, in peace time and for special classified operations," a unit official said.
Over the last year, new tactical combat measures were introduced in the unit, giving the soldiers broad and classified operational and engineering capabilities. These new measures aid infantry brigades significantly both in defense and offense.
"Some of the new measures the unit has are robots, which are already operating in the field: We have robots and technologies in all fields, and the unit is the expert on it. Our robots know how to operate in both closed and open quarters: everything from disposing bombs to finding fallen soldiers in the field. All of this will serve us in fighting in any setting, both in the north and in the south," the unit official explained.
Each and every combat soldier in the Yahalom Unit has undergone extensive commando training. Among other things, the troops do complex navigation exercises and, of course, learn how to provide professional solutions in urban areas, a field in which the unit specializes.